The Films of 2014: Foxcatcher

The 2014 awards season will kick off this week as the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review name their choices for the best films and performances of the year.  Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a film that’s been in the Oscar race since 2013; it was originally slated to come out last fall but was pushed back, presumably because last year’s competition was looking too stiff.  I’m not sure that its odds will be any better this year.  It’s a very good film, and the only feature by director Bennett Miller (of Capote and Moneyball) that I’ve liked; but will Academy voters go for something this grim, quiet, and cold?  This has to be one of the darkest Best Picture contenders of this decade.  Based on a true story, it dramatizes the attempts of eccentric billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to lead a group of wrestlers, led by brothers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), to victory at the 1988 Olympic Games.  But this is no upbeat, inspirational sports movie: du Pont is a mouth-breathing control freak with mommy issues, Mark doesn’t bring home the gold, and the tensions between the three men eventually culminate in violence. 

Miller shows a commitment to this material and a willingness to deal with it honestly that I respect.  This is a story with no winners, no happy endings, no swelling strings.  At the same time, Miller’s bracing, clinical approach leaves the film feeling slightly empty.  He gives us compelling reasons for du Pont’s obsessive behavior—du Pont is presented as the impotent patriarch of a crumbling dynasty—and he builds complexity into the relationship between the Schultz brothers, who are sometimes rivals, sometimes allies.  At the same time, the larger significance of this story doesn’t come across.  It’s gripping, but Miller’s approach lacks personality.  On paper, Miller’s films bear some resemblance to those of Paul Thomas Anderson: they’re both attracted to the kind of weird footnotes in American history that make for idiosyncratic period pictures.  But where Anderson infuses his films with a loony grandeur, Miller seems trepidatious and uncertain.  My suspicion is that his reliance on actors may be a way of deflecting attention away from his own confusion as an artist.  Foxcatcher is in many respects an intelligent and handsomely made film, but, as in Moneyball, Miller lacks an artist’s vision, or even an artist’s instincts. 

Foxcatcher’s chief pleasures can be traced back to its actors: Carell, Tatum, Ruffalo, and an under-utilized Vanessa Redgrave.  Carell—aided by sallow make-up and a beaky false nose—makes du Pont a figure of menacing awkwardness.  He’s both pathetic and creepy, and he contributes the film’s squirmiest scenes.  Because his role is the showiest in the film one risks overlooking the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo, which are just as accomplished, maybe even more so because they’re so low-key.  The greatness of Tatum’s performance has to do with the tension he creates between Mark’s physical prowess and his emotional and psychological vulnerability.  That this hulking bull of a man is made to become a sacrificial victim is one of Foxcatcher’s many sad ironies.

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